Motive a mystery in mass grave desecration. Lone suspect seen on video, NC cops say

Photo posted by Graham County Sheriff’s Office of the damage at Lone Oak Cemetery. Facebook screenshot
Photo posted by Graham County Sheriff’s Office of the damage at Lone Oak Cemetery. Facebook screenshot

A mass grave desecration Saturday at a North Carolina cemetery may have involved a single, middle-aged woman seen at the burial site with two dogs, according to a Graham County Sheriff’s Office Facebook post.

At least 60 tombstones were overturned Saturday in what police described as a “despicable act” at Lone Oak Cemetery, near Lake Santeetlah in western North Carolina, the post said.

Photos that accompanied the post showed row after row of tombstones toppled in the dirt along the cemetery’s mountain slopes.

The suspect was caught on church surveillance cameras Saturday, wearing a plaid shirt, jeans and sunglasses, the sheriff’s office said. She left in an older model white Pontiac, officials posted.

On Monday, the sheriff’s office identified the suspect as 58-year-old Dawn Renee Phillips and announced she had been arrested in Cherokee County and charged with 61 felony counts of desecrating graves.

Phillips is an Oregon native, but had a Kentucky driver’s license when arrested, reported TV station WLOS.

Fox Carolina reported Monday that bond for Phillips was set at $125,000.

“The female is the only subject that was found to be on the video, (but we are) not ruling out that others are involved,” a Graham County Sheriff’s Office Facebook post stated.

The suspect was identified Sunday, after a tipster reported seeing her at a rest area near Andrews in Cherokee County, according to the sheriff’s office. Graham County Sheriff’s Office said an arrest warrant was issued with the help of the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Office.

Investigators have not said where the suspect lives, why she was at the cemetery or what the motive was behind toppling the tombstones.

Graham County Sheriff’s Office officials said the tipster that led them to Phillips has decided to donate the $500 reward toward repairs at the cemetery.

Mark Price has been a reporter for The Charlotte Observer since 1991, covering beats including schools, crime, immigration, the LGBTQ issues, homelessness and nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Memphis with majors in journalism and art history, and a minor in geology.